Zika virus response: The rise of the BioNerds?

Watching the Zika literature roll out, I am amazed at how decentralized the authors, countries of origin, and institutions are. There are important contributions to the peer reviewed literature being made from a wide range of non-aligned groups (non-government, non-university), and from a wide range of countries and institutions that are often relegated to publication in obscure journals.

While attending the recent WHO Zika R&D consultation, one theme that surprised me was that important scientific and epidemiologic contributions had been blocked from publication in major journals such as Nature etc., apparently because the submitting authors and institutions were considered of insufficient status and merit.  So the world (including US CDC/HHS and WHO) slept while Brazil burned.  One response has been for many of the established scientific journals to change their policies regarding publication, and to allow the use ofpre-print servers without compromising publication rights.

In the face of the leadership vacuum of the USG and WHO, many others are  now stepping in to fill the void.  Our group (Zika Response Working Group andAtheric Pharmaceutical LLC) has been at the forefront of this wave, but now I am seeing many other non-aligned groups (meaning non-Governmental, non-University, and not associated with established NGO) forming and making important contributions.  PATH, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Paul Allen, and others seem to be waiting on the sidelines.  Only the Wellcome Trust has responded promptly.

The US flavivirus "establishment" including the epidemiology group @ Yale, Scott Weaver @ UTMB, CDC, NIAID, BARDA are contributing very little to this first wave of publications and knowledge.

I speculate that what we are seeing is the awakening of decentralized, non-institutional biology.  The rise of a new cadre of Bionerds.

Of course, my colleagues in the intelligence and Defense Threat Reduction communities will immediately recognize the threat that this represents.

DTRA and the IC have long recognized the biosecurity threat that would manifest if garage biology became a reality.

What is happening with Zika, I suggest, is that the failure of large institutions (government, worldwide organizations and academia) to provide effective leadership and agile response capability has now become self evident to the world.

The R&D emphasis of WHO and HHS are exclusively focused on vaccines and diagnostics.  There is a complete failure to recognize that the timelines for development of a vaccine are mis-matched with the rate of spread of Zika virus.  At best, we will have a vaccine 2-3 years after most susceptible populations have been infected.  WHO and HHS have no interest in supporting development of re-purposed drug, antibody and other biologics countermeasures, even those are the only solutions which have any chance of providing timely benefit to the tens to hundreds of millions of people at risk.  

The large pharmaceutical companies are largely waiting this out because they spent a lot of treasure and time to try to support the world response to Ebola, and have provided virtually no return on investment to their shareholders.  There are still no licensed drugs, immunotherapeutics or vaccines for Ebola, so no profit.

The failure of the world community to fund the WHO effort to respond to Zika is actually an implicit indictment of WHO leadership.  Countries appear unwilling to trust WHO with their money.  Similarly, the failure of the US Congress to fund HHS Zika research objectives is an implicit indictment of HHS leadership.

And into the breach, we are seeing a diverse global community of biologists step in.  BioHacking.

This will have consequences.  The good news is that this diversity of opinions and effort are enabling innovation and circumventing the myopic focus of WHO and HHS on vaccines as the only viable countermeasure.  

But once this happens, and you have a swarm of BioNerd tinkerers that feel empowered, then pandora's box will be opened and all kinds of things will jump out.  Custom DNA and RNA synthesis has become a routine commodity, available all over the world.  With the advent of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, commodity genetic modification of a wide range of organisms (including human) will soon follow.  The fantastic dystopic visions of Philip K Dick and Ridley Scott are now upon us.

Not just one pandora's box, but multiple, all over the world.

This is happening now, before our eyes.

Zika is changing our world in many ways.

Things may never be the same again.  I think that I can say that more assertively.  Things will never be the same again.

Welcome to a world inhabited by empowered garage BioNerds.